There Was An Explosion Adjacent To A Helicopter
Session 2 brings in our first temporary player – a Medic named Dr. John McTavish, a former British army medic now working as a doctor in the Edinburgh hospital where Edom brought Hopkins. The team follow the Edom convoy to the edge of the city, then call to Dr. John’s flat to recruit him. Traffic Analysis warns them that an air-ambulance helicopter was on its way, implying Edom is preparing to move Hopkins by air.
The plan – infiltrate the hospital, recover Hopkins. Aided by Dr. John’s credentials and various disguises, the team make it to the secure upper floor. Hopkins’ room is guarded by two Prosperine ratings – Edom’s special forces. McAllister heads upstairs to secure the helicopter, while the other three try various approaches to bluff their way past the guards. It doesn’t go especially well – things go from “hi, we’re here to prep the patient for transit” to “ok, now the second guard’s trying to strangle you with a towel” in about ten minutes of game time. Upstairs, luck isn’t on the agents’ side earlier: McAllister tries to covertly take out the guards watching the helicopter with a silenced pistol, rolls really badly for damage, and decides to escalate to grenades.
On the bright side, the ensuing fire alarm and mass evacuation of the hospital means that the close-quarters knife/syringe/fistfight in the linen closet downstairs goes unnoticed, even after someone pulled a gun. By the end, Elgin and Dr. John are both still alive and the other pair were unconscious, but no-one is unscathed. Elgin picks up a pair of mysterious syringes (Seward Serum) from the downed guards while Baptiste escapes with the unconscious Hopkins. A quick examination of her chart shows that she’d lost a great deal of blood through a neck wound (said neck wound has tooth marks consistent with a bite from a child). There’s also a woman’s corpse of roughly the same age and appearance as Hopkins, suggesting Edom intends on faking her death.
The team exfiltrates hastily – wait, no, Preparedness 8. The team exfiltrates along a carefully planned back route to a service yard where McAllister has parked another hire car. They flee the city, heading for a safe house belonging to John in Falkirk. There, they wake and question Hopkins, who tells them that she was working with a source inside Edom. She knows that Edom somehow reactivated Dracula in 1940, but that he was kept trapped in Romania by some countermeasure (“held in check”, to be precise). Edom was working to weaken this countermeasure, and her analysis suggested that Edom was ready to bring Dracula across into Whitby by ship. Her plan had been to recruit the agents, then take a fishing trawler out to intercept and destroy Dracula while he was still helpless in his coffin. Clearly, someone fed her bad intel to lay a trap for her and other enemies of Dracula.
If a vampire had bitten her, then it’s possible that it can read her thoughts, just like Mina and Dracula. The agents decide that even with anti-vampire precautions, Hopkins is a liability as long as the child vampire was still out there. They load the car with garlic, sedated Hopkins and cross the country again, heading for some old army buddies of McAllister. They stash Hopkins there, making sure that she had no idea where in the country she is and hence (they hope) unable to relay any added information to Edom’s child vampire.
They swap cars yet again, and arrive in London in a borrowed landrover. McAllister and Elgin pretends to be journalists for an occult magazine, and flatter Osmond Singleton into inviting them to his house for an interview. John and Baptiste watch the occultist’s South London mansion from outside.
The door’s opened by a beautiful blonde girl, who invites them in. Singleton’s in the middle of a sordid party, but his ego can’t resist talking about himself and psychogeography at length. While McAllister endures a lengthy monologue on Singleton’s Blood and Soil: an Occult Exhumation of Romania, Elgin sneaks upstairs…
Outside, things get strange. A parade of drugged-up party-goers troop out of the house and onto a waiting minibus, where they change into costumes. Specifically, late Victorian formal wear for some, and servants’ costumes for others. Baptiste tails the bus as it drives to the ruins of Hillingham, the now-derelict house once home to the Westenra family. The party has become a weird masquerade, with the drugged actors swarming through the graffiti-covered walls of the old mansion, apparently taking on the roles of various people from the Dracula novel. At the same time, a weird thruuum thruuum vibration rolls through the ground – coming, Baptiste discovers, from a large plastic camouflage tent in the back garden of the house. The party-goers are studiously ignoring the anachronistic tent as they take on more and more of the qualities of the characters they’re portraying. The air seems thicker, the light… slower.
Back at Singleton’s, the occultist ushers McAllister out. Mist has descended on the garden of Singleton’s house. From outside, McAllister sees a weird blue light suddenly flare in one of the upstairs rooms.
And upstairs, Elgin finds that very room, drawn by same weird hypnotic thruuum thruuum sound that seems to echo through the house without a discernible source. In the room is a circle of candles, blazing with blue flames. In the centre of the circle is the ghost of a dark-haired woman in Victorian costume. She silently mouths HELP ME at the thief. He blows out the candles, breaking the circle –
– At Hillingham, the noise goes thruuum thruuum THUNK, and engineers in the tent yelp in alarm as everything goes wrong. The spell over the masquerade is broken –
And in the garden at Singleton’s house, McAllister finds the corpse of Dr. John McTavish. His throat has been torn out and his back snapped by some tremendous force…
A Few Notes on Directing: Let’s pull the curtain back on a few incidents and talk running games.
Not-so-silent takedown: In a movie, taking out the guards at the helicopter would almost certainly have been a quick scene of competent assassination – thwip thwip of a silenced pistol, and two bodies crumple. But it was our first fight, some of the players were new to GUMSHOE, and poor McAllister rolled so badly on the damage rolls (two ones) that I ruled that one guard survived and was able to fire back.
Too much uncertainty in a roleplaying game, especially in a spy thriller where the odds are massively against the group, is paralysing. If doing anything carries the risk of catastrophic failure, then players tend to turtle up and do as little as possible. Conversely, if the Gamemaster is too forgiving and everything happens in accordance with the rules of a Bond-esque thriller where the heroes are flawless and infallible, the game gets boring. Total competence and total incompetence are both boring.
Night’s Black Agents addresses this by offering the players the opportunity to buy moments of perfection: you’ve got a once-per-game auto-success in one ability (your Military Occupation Speciality), you can spend lots of General Ability points to beat any reasonable difficulty, and you can spend Investigative Ability points if you can justify how your Art History helps you beat up a mafia goon (“I hit him with the marble bust of famed oil painter Gionanni Bellini (1430-1520)”).
When the players don’t buy that infallibility, though, let the dice fall where they may.
Calibrating to the group: In the fight downstairs, Dr. John spent points of Pharmacy to have prepped some sedative syringes, and assumed that these would work in a cinematic fashion – jam it into a bad guy, bad guy falls down. Baptiste’s player, though a) already told me he’d prefer a somewhat realistic, Dust-style game and b) is a paramedic in real life, so knows what would be available in a hospital pharmacy. We agreed to downgrade the effect of the sedatives to “it makes them drowsy and uncoordinated”, which translated to attack penalties and health checks instead of an instant takedown. John still got to save the day with medical trickery, as the agents would likely have lost a two-on-two fight with the bad guys, but it meant the victory was a little more suited to the desired vibe of the game. (It’s much easier, obviously, to ramp up into high-octane weirdness and action later in a campaign than it is to ramp down into gritty Smiley-esque paranoia, so start your game in the lowest gear your group will tolerate and switch up over time.
Heat in the background: Heat is a wonderful mechanic to remind the players of the consequences of their actions and to force them to act covertly, but it almost always works better as a sauce instead of the main course. I could have included, say, a car chase or a fight with the police as the PCs try to escape Edinburgh having just blown up a helicopter on the roof of a busy central hospital, but it wouldn’t have advanced the story. Instead, I let them get away with a few tests and Urban Survival spends.
Having agents captured or attacked by the bad guys is fun; having agents arrested or shot by ordinary cops only works in a very long game. (If an agent had gotten arrested in this campaign, I’d have brought in Oakes or some other Edom officer to whisk them away from the police and back into the clandestine arena.)
Everything’s a lead: The players picked Singleton to investigate based on the annotations in the Dossier, plus identifying him as the likely author of Hawkins Paper 28. I had assumed they’d actually go in search of the Retired MI5 Computer Boffin (DH, p. 99), as I trailed his name in the phone, the post-its and in conversation with Hopkins. Equally, I’d dropped references to Exeter and Carfax as likely Edom bases. In the Dracula Dossier, though, everything’s designed to eventually funnel back to Drac, so I wasn’t worried when the Agents fixated on the Psychic (DH, p. 96). Plus, he’s a fun NPC to play as a grotesque.